After our wonderful weekend in Asheville, our friends headed East while we drove West. Up into The Great Smoky Mountains, a place high on Shiz’s list, we went, en route to Knoxville. As the USA’s most visited national park, we made sure to pass through the heart of it.
Great Smoky Mountains
I love all forests, but so far a couple have really stood out. The Olympics, The Redwoods, and The Cascades all have something about them, something that makes you love every inch of them. You can walk, drive, hike, bike, it doesn’t matter. They are all places where you leave feeling refreshed and somehow connected to a huge mass of trees.
The Smoky Mountains are part of this group.
Fin was sleeping while we drove through the main road over the mountains, but our drive was filled with exclamations of wonder. Drooping branches and murky light that glides down to Earth through the canopy, the forests that surround just the driving path beckon you to slow down and stare at them. This hilly, winding drive is punctuated with sweeping views of the hills and plenty of pull-outs for gazing.
The drive was so nice that Shiz didn’t even take one picture; she was that focused on the woods.
I cannot express how glad I am that we visited this range, but next on the list is going back for some hiking. I can only image the joy that would bring.
We were simply not prepared for Pigeon Forge, but I now know why the Smokies are the most visited national park in the USA. Not just the home of Dollywood, Pigeon Forge and next door Gaitlinburg are Tennessee’s answer to Las Vegas. Literally the minute you leave the Great Mosky mountains you hit a town designed to give definition to the idea of a tourist trap.
Everywhere sells t-shirts. The ice-cream-to-other-store ration is really high. This town has more mirror mazes than stoplights.
As you drive through town, everything is an assault on your wallet. Coming out of the wonder that is the Great Smokey mountains, the contrast is pretty striking. We were confused, amused, and floored.
And then we entered Pigeon Forge.
Where Gatlinburg is a tourist trap, Pigeon Forge is a tourist snare. The main road is attraction after attraction, ranging from some of the coolest go-kart rides I have ever seen to bible-themed dinner theater.
This is not a town where you build a normal building, either. To make it in Pigeon Forge, your building must have a theme. We saw castles, Hollywood, Bible, Titanic, pirates, and pretty much everything under the sun. It was like seeing the life-sized version of every Lego set available.
There is also a giant bell.
Pigeon Forge is not our kind of place, so we drove through to Knoxville. Knoxville is our kind of place. A decent-sized city with a small town feel, roads were nice, people were extremely friendly, and the town was easy enough to navigate. The downtown is really cute and filled with nice things and the library is solid. While we didn’t go in, Knoxville houses the Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame, the entry of which has a giant basketball on top.
The city operates free trolleys through downtown, so we checked out the main mall – a pedestrian only public square – and rode around town. We also visited the World’s Fair Park from 1982 (home of the giant golden disco ball in the sky) and the awesome (and free) museum of art next door. With all this stuff in town, you can easily spend a week loving Knoxville.
One of my very good friends from when I lived in Japan owns a winery NE of Knoxville, so we headed out to the farm to reconnect, taste, wine, and hang out. It had been a good 10 years, but one joy of close friends is that time alters only our skins. We picked back up like we last saw each other yesterday and learned about wine in Tennessee (turns out Southerners like sweet wine, though Goodwater is drier by comparison). If you’re ever in the area and like good wine and nice people, check it out.